"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The morning sky is so dramatic looking I wouldn’t be surprised if Carleton Heston would appear in a chariot. Yesterday turned into a day as balmy and sweet as a baby’s smile. I was running errands midday and talked the cashier at Trader Joes into juggling my oranges. He says the trick to juggling is “softening the eyes.” I keep thinking that might be an analogy to writing. Then I went on to New Seasons for more supplies and was telling the cashier about the juggling act and he told me a joke. Question: Why wasn’t the lifeguard able to save the hippie? Answer: Because he was too far out. Then I came home to an editing job and reality.

So maybe this summer with the price of gas you might not be able to afford a trip to the beach, but you might be able to still buy books or borrow them from the library. With longer days ahead, let’s round up more summer reads. Each June I buy the latest Janet Evanovich Stephanie Plum mystery and spend an evening sipping chilled Viognier or a wine suited to summer on my patio and reading Plum’s latest hijinks, giggling from time to time. But these days I’m reading mostly mainstream and am now reading Richard Russo’s latest novel, Bridge of Sighs.

So here are more picks from the Wall Street Journal Robert J Hughes: The summer will also see books by many first-time authors, including the short-story collections "One More Year" by Ukrainian-American Sana Krasikov and "Say You're One of Them" by Uwem Akpan, a Jesuit priest from Nigeria. "One of the things that makes American literature so vital at this point is that we have input from so many different cultures and linguistic backgrounds," says Paul Yamazaki, coordinating buyer at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco.

Since it's an election year, there's a surge of political books. Among them: a still-untitled work from Ron Suskind on national security, "Your Government Failed You" by Richard A. Clarke and "What Happened" by former White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

The $28 billion book industry faces challenges in a sluggish economy. Bookstore sales in the first quarter totaled $4.46 billion, a 5.1% increase over the comparable period in 2007, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But this week Barnes & Noble lowered its sales forecast for the year. "There are people who believe that books are recession-proof," says Stan Hynds, head buyer for Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt. "We're going to find out."

His choices are Nonfiction: When You are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris; Nixonland, Rick Perlstein; American Nerd, Ben Nugent; One Minute to Midnight, Michael Dobbs; The Monster of Florence, Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi; Rome: 1960, David Mariniss

Historical Fiction: City of Thieves, David Benioff; The Garden of Last Days, Andre du Bus III; Berlin Book Two: City of Smoke, Jason Lutes; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows; World/Contemporary: My Sister, My Love, Joyce Carol Oates; Beijing Coma, Ma Jian; Pharmakon, Dirk Wittenborn; Fearless Fourteen, Janet Evanovich

More info can be found at http://online.wsj.com

Friday, May 30, 2008

Blue peeking through the cloud cover this morning and the day is supposed to be dry and in the 70s. Last night I went with a friend to listen to Phillip Margolin talk about how to write a novel in your spare time. Margolin is a local author and has written 13 best-selling thrillers. His latest book is called Executive Privilege and he was modest, funny, and charming.

I was attending the talk for several reasons, but mostly because last weekend one of my friends was here for dinner and she kept bemoaning the fact that she works so much she has no time to write. She’s a talented writer but her job as a private investigator trying to save people sentenced to death, involves a lot of travel and long hours. After our dinner party I called her to talk about this and mentioned that I’d interviewed Diana Gabaldon and we’d talked about how she managed her writing time. My interview with Gabaldon is now out in the July issue of The Writer. Since much of what we talked about didn’t appear in this article, I’ll post more of our conversation here.

Anyway, Gabaldon’s books run about 1,000 pages each, so her manuscripts must be ginormous. She first began writing when she was working two jobs and raising three young children. Her children are grown now but she has a lot of demands for her time because of her success. She does the bulk of her writing between about midnight and four in the morning.

Margolin has tried a number of death penalty cases and has argued before the Supreme Court. He retired from law in 1996 but wrote his first five books while still practicing. And this is the truth of most writers’ lives: you will write your first books while raising a family, or working full time, or both. So back when Margolin was still working he spent his weekend mornings about-- 8 hours total-- writing.

He begins with an idea that grabs him and doesn’t begin writing a book until he knows the ending. He also spends one to three months writing a detailed outline of 25-60 pages. He explained that in the early years of writing sometimes he’d be involved in a death penalty case that required so many hours of work that he wouldn’t be able to write on weekends. So when he resumed writing after a break, he could reread the last ten pages of his manuscript and consult his outline to resume work.

Margolin also stressed the importance of mulling over a story and getting to know it before you start writing. He first conceived the idea for Executive Privilege in 1994. He also begins his outline with answering the who, what, when, where and why of the story.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sky is dusty looking. Last night I returned from viewing the new Indiana Jones film and was puttering around my office, cleaning off my desk which somehow is always piled high with books and paper. (In my opinion the latest Indy film is a dud—bad dialogue and a sort of flatness and lack of suspense, although it does contain a few great chase scenes.) I was listening to the NPR show On the Media because they were discussing the state of book publishing.

When I talk to writers at conferences I try to make the point that these days writers must be extra-creative, professional, and polished in order to break in because the publishing industry has changed so drastically in the past twenty five years. So let’s talk about some of these factors and what writers are up against.

Here is how the show began: “The new media are thriving. The old media are dying. That seems to be the theme of our program from week to week to week. But, of course, it's much more complicated than that because increasingly the old and new are merging into one another. This week, we're devoting the program to the oldest of old media – books.”

The hosts went on to list statistics: 60 percent of all books are not bought in brick-and-mortar bookstores; they're purchased at airports or checkout counters, Wal-Mart or Costco, or Williams-Sonoma, or online. 11 percent are purchased from Amazon.com. The rest are bought at bookstores, but mostly the big chains. The membership of the American Booksellers Association, which serves independent bookstores, has dropped from more than 5,000 to roughly 1,700 in the last decade.

Add to the state of affairs are that most publishers have merged in mega-conglomerates, many of them foreign owned. Most of these companies are publicly owned so the stock holders demand huge profits. Thus they have incentives to focus on best sellers and publish lots of books, rather than lovingly nurture a small number of great books. These days depending on if you count self publishing, 200-300,000 books are published each year. This means publishers are pressured to push out book faster with few editorial changes; it’s difficult to publicize and market all these titles; and a lot of books that are published are crap. Along with these factors book sections in newspapers are shrinking or disappearing. On the show, it was estimated that about 2,000 authors do well under the current system. Do the math on what happens to most authors. Then start building your platform.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The sky is sooty and although the day is young, it has a quiet feel with a single bird song interrupting at regular intervals. I’ve been trying to remember what we did on Memorial Day when I was a girl. I remember elderly veterans standing outside grocery stores selling red poppies. Thinking back, these men must have veterans of the World War I, and when I recall the day, it’s linked with crepey skin and shaking hands. No one in my family ever died in the service although one of my uncles served as did my brother and cousin.

Yesterday I drove past a nearby pioneer cemetery and noticed that it was being spruced up for visitors and it was dotted with fresh bouquets. I talked with my cousin yesterday who stills lives in the small town where I grew up and some family members are going to the cemetery to visit my grandmother’s grave.

And now on NPR they’re running a brief story about Les Fleurs de la Memoire, or Flowers of Memory. This is a group of French citizens who have adopted the graves of American soldiers killed during the D Day operation. The cemetery contains the remains of 10,000 soldiers and every time I’ve seen photographs of this place, the crosses and Stars of David that mark each grave seem to stretch forever.

Living far from most of my family, I have no graves to visit, but I’ve been thinking about all the young lives that ended in battle. Thinking about how all these men and women had plans and dreams and a destiny that were erased. And I wonder what constituted the first war, the first battle in the history of humankind. Was it a skirmish over a hunting ground or a kidnapping?

When I think back it seems that Memorial Day was often the first picnic of the summer and that it marked the end of spring and the emergence of summer. Back then school was usually over around Memorial Day so it always represented the freedom of summer days stretching ahead, full of promise.

These days besides remembering the dead from war, this weekend also signifies summer reading. At the NPR website you can find a list of books recommended by independent bookseller and you can also read excerpts from the books. The link is: http://www.npr.orghttp://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90478802

And the books are: City of Thieves, by David Benioff, Now You See Him, by Eli Gottlieb, The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry, Trauma, by Patrick McGrath, Wrack & Ruin, by Don Lee, America America, by Ethan Canin, What Happened to Anna K., by Irina Reyn, The Prince of Frogtown, by Rick Bragg, My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekov to Munro, edited by Jeffrey Eugenide, Mudbound by Hillary Jordan, Today: 101 Ghazals, by Suzanne Gardinier, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida, The Story of a Marriage, by Andrew Sean Greer

At salon.com you can also find their Summer Reads article with suggestions for thrillers: Hold Tight by Harlan Coben, The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber, Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, Obedience by Will Lavender, Losing You by Nicci French

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Sky looks like the backdrop for a monster movie. Speaking of a scare, who doesn’t love a mystery? If you’re living in the Portland, Oregon area you’re probably aware of the Murder by the Book store located on Southeast Hawthorne. In June the store will be celebrating it’s 25th anniversary—that’s a lot of customers trying to nail a lot of murdering fiends…..

This Saturday, one of my editing clients, Jess Lourey will be signing books, including her latest August Moon at Murder by the Book along with Dana Fredsti signing The Peruvian Pigeon. I’ve worked on all four of Lourey’s books, chuckling along the way. They’re about a Battle Lake, a small town in northern Minnesota and a librarian and writer named Mira who runs into more dead bodies than the average chick. Jess is great to work with and I’m looking forward to her next manuscript, a historical—so join me there.

This is what the MBTB website says about the event: Sat. 5/24, 11 am - 1 pm: JESS LOUREY & DANA FREDSTI entertaining all comers * Fedsti is a self-described ex-B movie actress who has written a humorous cozy, The Peruvian Pigeon ($12.95); Lourey is the author of the lively Murder by Month series, the newest of which, August Moon will be hot off the press for her visit, and the last of which Knee High by the Fourth of July featured the disappearance of an organic gardener (see #20). Win a free copy of Dana's book with any purchase over $25 between 11 and 1. Their website is at http://mbtb.com/. Jess’ website is: www.JessLourey.com and Dana’s website is www.danafredsti.com

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

I woke late ( 7 a.m.) to the familiar sound of rain dripping from pale skies. Since I’ve such a wuss when it comes to heat I’m happy for the reprieve, to slip back into our world of damp.

Last night I went for a walk with a friend, another writer, in the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden that is about five miles from here. The rhodies are still blooming along with azaleas and the whole was washed in a sweet spring palette of pinks, purples, white, and shades of green. I’d been writing in the morning but had spent most of day working on taxes and paperwork since I’m behind in things and have lost some papers. So I’m trying to clean up the piles of paper that are surrounding me and have been tossing out and filing, the task in life I most dislike.

So by the evening I was feeling a little frazzled, but within minutes of walking around, my nerves were calmed, and my life started to slip back into manageable components. There is a spring-fed lake that surrounds much of the garden, charming bridges, waterfalls, and paths that wind through it all. There were also ducks and geese and several new hatches of wood ducks swimming and waddling around the place, oblivious to the visitors. When I used to live in Wisconsin I would often travel to the northern part of the state to hike among the lakes and forests. Living in Portland, there are magnificent gardens and an old growth forest within the city limits, and the Columbia River Gorge just outside the city limits, so I don’t need to travel far to find that lovely calm that comes from walking in the woods, smelling ferns and trees and water.

The best way I know to offset the hours spent at a computer, and the easiest means to access your creativity is by walking. Especially when you amble along paying attention to the world, letting your thoughts roam free. It so simple really, walking helps trigger the right brain and writing comes from the body and mind. Brenda Ueland first wrote about this in her book If You Want to Write, penned in the 1930s. She notes: "My explanation of it, is that when I walk in a carefree way, without straining to get to my destination, then I am living in the present. And it is only then that the creative power flourishes."

She also writes: “These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas.... But they have no slow, big ideas. And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.”

And this precious bit of advice: “And so now you will begin to work at your writing. Remember these things. Work with all your intelligence and love. Work freely and rollickingly as though they were talking to a friend who loves you. Mentally (at least three or four times a day) thumb your nose at all know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, doubters.”

Here is the link to the garden: http://www.portlandonline.com/parks/finder/index.cfm?PropertyID=27&action=ViewPark

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The sky is etched with pinks and purples and a single bird is calling outside my office window, his song at once sorrowful and arresting. Yesterday it was in the 90s again here and the world felt blistering. With the heat came quick snow melt and now avalanches and avalanche danger. I was out running errands for part of the day and each time I needed to leave the world within my air conditioned car, moving into the heat became more jarring

I’m working on a grab bag chapter in my new book about all the small things that drive an editor crazy—it runs from autobiographical fiction (always deadly) to coincidences to wimpy verbs. If there are certain elements in fiction that drive YOU crazy, drop me a line.

Meanwhile, I’ve finished reading Kate Christensen’s The Great Man and found that the characters are still lingering in my imagination as if I’ve met them at an all-day party or weekend in the country. Also, it really is refreshing to find a writer willing to write about older characters with such accuracy and vividness. Growing old scares me and I’ve been thinking a lot about this fear lately. In her characters she boldly shows all the yearning and loneliness and aches of the older experience. Let’s hear it for more biddy lit.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The sky is still pale but the sun is rising in a blaze of pinks and lavenders splashed across the eastern sky. Summer moved in yesterday with temperatures in the 90s and it was a bit difficult to cope with, coming on so suddenly.

I was just skimming my email before settling down to writing and noticed that Bill Moyers has posted an excerpt of his book, Moyers on Democracy at http://www.alternet.org/democracy/8551. In part he says, “Democracy in America is a series of narrow escapes, and we may be running out of luck. The reigning presumption about the American experience, as the historian Lawrence Goodwyn has written, is grounded in the idea of progress, the conviction that the present is "better" than the past and the future will bring even more improvement. For all of its shortcomings, we keep telling ourselves, "The system works."

Now all bets are off. We have fallen under the spell of money, faction, and fear, and the great American experience in creating a different future together has been subjugated to individual cunning in the pursuit of wealth and power -and to the claims of empire, with its ravenous demands and stuporous distractions. A sense of political impotence pervades the country -- a mass resignation defined by Goodwyn as "believing the dogma of 'democracy' on a superficial public level but not believing it privately." We hold elections, knowing they are unlikely to bring the corporate state under popular control. There is considerable vigor at local levels, but it has not been translated into new vistas of social possibility or the political will to address our most intractable challenges. Hope no longer seems the operative dynamic of America, and without hope we lose the talent and drive to cooperate in the shaping of our destiny.”

I’m hoping that Moyers is wrong about the mass resignation he mentions and the huge numbers of new voters registering to vote in the Democratic primary is proof of that….

I received an email from a woman who attended my Writing a Book That Makes a Difference workshop at the Oregon coast in April. She said that after the workshop she was energized, but now her enthusiasm for writing a big project has diminished and she’s not sure why. This seems to go to the heart of being a writer. For most of us there are periods when the jazzy juiced up writing highs diminish and you show up for the page bleary and empty. Since I’m working on my fifth book for writers I’m facing those feelings myself.

Yesterday I woke not feeling particularly inspired to dive into my book, so I spent most of my writing session organizing my chapters since I’ve decided to combine some chapters, researching, and working on handouts for upcoming workshops. By the time I finished at about noon it felt like a productive session. Then I took a nap and after waking, ate a late lunch. After lunch I ran errands and bought myself two charming wicker chairs for my patio and another fan. Today I feel much more like writing away.

So if you face a lull of writing inspiration, find another approach. Research. Abandon perfectionism. Comb through your writer’s notebooks. Read books and magazines on craft. Send out a query. Write short pieces. Revise something already written. Clean your office. Use writing prompts. Try out a new format. Organize a long project into chapters. Create a scene list. Write character bios. Organize a project bible to keep track of details on a large project. Watch movies. Be gentle with yourself.

But maybe the best way to prepare for lulls in your writing energy is to expect them and prepare for them. I keep a list of projects I want to write on a closet door in my office and usually there’s always at least one project on that list that will tempt me. I try to outline ideas when I’m full of juice so that I have a running start. I also try not to work solely on one project at a time, so if my enthusiasms wanes for one project, I shift to a second, smaller project.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The sky is sooty and a big heat up is on the way. Yesterday afternoon we slipped from spring into summer.

Yesterday I also finished a chapter for my new book, She Said Winsomely and other Dialogue Disasters. The chapter focuses on dialogue, or rather the dialogue problems I most often spot in manuscripts. These include “as you know Bob” dialogue, or when the writer has characters talk about something they both know to drop information or backstory into the story.

Another problem is chit chat—when characters talk about nothing much for the sake of making things realistic. Problem is that chit chat is dull as dishwasher and it’s not the road to realism.

Then there are drama queens—characters who are overwrought, over dramatic, over the top every time they open their mouths. A little goes a long way.

“On the nose” dialogue is another problem for many writers. This means that characters say exactly what they mean. Trouble is, as in real life, people need to talk in circles, avoid the truth, or hint at truths.

Then there are speeches and rants when the characters espouse the writer’s beliefs or opinions, especially about hot-button issues. Don’t do this.

I also identified the “expert witness” problem when a character’s expertise is needed in the story, but it bogs down with overly long exchanges, especially when it’s loaded with jargon. The solution is to cut to the chase and use experts who are fascinating or quirky.

Then there is name dropping—when the writer constantly refers to the speakers’ names in dialogue, as in:

“Mary, I need to talk with you about something important.”

“Sure Stephanie, I’ll be right there—I’m all ears.”

“Thanks Mary, I knew I could count on you.”

This habit also makes the exchange stilted and inauthentic.

Finally, I warned writers to take care with speech tags—the he said, she said parts of dialogue that identifies the speaker. The trick is to make them invisible and to avoid describing the quality or volume of the voice.

You see, dialogue is never a copy of real life speech—it’s like conversation’s greatest hits. It’s always crisper, punchier, and embedded with subtext—the sea of emotions that runs beneath a scene but is never spoken out loud. Good dialogue is spontaneous and natural, but it leaves out the boring parts of life and is often a power struggle or power exchange. We use dialogue because it shows instead of tells

Another terrific resource for writing dialogue is found in Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages. Lukeman says, “Dialogue is a powerful too, to be used sparingly, effectively and at the right moment. Dialogue is to the writer what the veto is to the president: it gives you great power and authority. If you overuse it, people will have to submit, but they resent you for it; if you use it wisely, they will applaud your control, your will power.”

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The morning sky is the color of smoke and this morning I kept having the same dream over and over, sort of like the film Ground Hog’s Day. In the dream I was teaching a class of women and asked them to stand in the center of the room. I then asked them to each make one promise to themselves to change a behavior that stands in the way of their writing. Then they were supposed to sit down and write about 3 actions they can take to write more. In the dream it was like herding cats and new students who hadn’t registered for the class kept showing up and the whole thing was chaos. I woke up wondering about the larger meaning. But the question is a good one, what one thing can you change so you write more?

People sometimes ask me to list my favorite novels and I always mention Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River in my Top Five. If you write fiction or just enjoy reading fiction that is a rich mix of unforgettable characters, drama, adventure, and tragedy, you need to read it. But you also read Enger for voice, because rarely does fiction have such a rich and poignant voice and magical prose. So imagine my surprise when I walked into Powells a few days ago and spotted Enger’s new book, So Brave, Young, And Handsome.
I finished reading it yesterday and read it with my notebook open because I kept noting specific words for my word list and phrases that caught my eye such as when he described a character as having “a voice like a kazoo.”Enger has written another adventure full of twists and oddballs and heroes—it’s an altogether delicious story. 

But what really tickled me was the story within the story. The narrator Monte Becket explains:
“Here’s how I came to this sorry pass. In the fall of 1910 I published a short novel called Martin Bligh, which became so popular I quit being a postman and started calling myself an author. Who knows how these things happen? The book was an adventure tale. Nothing ambitious. I only wrote it for entertainment and to gratify as sort of wishful ache—Martin Bligh was a postman too, though as a Pony Express rider he had a better shot at glory and peril than I in my tinctured cell at the Northfield P.O. It was a story to make a boy learn forward; it had Indians and great ships and the buried gold of Coronado and two separate duels, including one with sabers. I also added a black-haired senorita, because my own Susannah loves a romance, yet Bligh was reviewed in a Chicago newspaper as “disturbingly real,” no doubt because some of the Indians adorned their pintos with bloody blond scalps. That the haggard and venerated Buffalo Bill Cody read my story and praised it in newspaper interviews did not hurt the book at all, though it hardly explains why the first printing of three thousand copies disappeared in two weeks. …”
Trouble is, Monte cannot manage to write a follow-up to this book and meanwhile he meets and an outlaw Glendon Hale who has been dreaming about the woman he left behind when he was young. You’ll especially enjoy the bad guy in this story, an ex-Pinkerton agent named Charlie Siringo and how Enger has captured the syntax of the era. Maybe Monte cannot write another stirring tale, but Enger’s new offering is a stunning successor to Peace Like a River and Enger is the real deal.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Gray, gray and more roiling gray out my window…Oops I just spotted a patch of blue so disregard first sentence.

Just to prove that I’m not all snark and criticism, I want to urge everyone to see The Visitor—one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. It was written and directed by Tom McCarthy who also directed The Station Agent—a film I also highly recommend. It shines a light on our government’s treatment of illegal aliens, particularly those from the Middle East in these post-911 days, but it’s not shrill, it’s not a manifesto. Mostly it’s a tender story of people bumping together in New York City and how friendship can bring out buried feelings and hope in all.

It’s the story of 60-something college professor, Walter Vale, played by Richard Jenkins who is sleep-walking through his days after the death of his wife. In the inciting incident Vale is forced to leave his safety zone in Connecticut to travel to New York City to present a paper at a conference. Which is when he steps into his apartment to find two strangers staying there, Zainab (Danai Gurira), from Senegal. Zainab and her boyfriend Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian musician. But they aren’t squatters, they’ve been paying rent to a scam artist.

Gradually their association begins large and small changes in Walter. But even as the movie is tackling difficult subjects like our immigration policy, it never shouts. Instead, the smallest gesture or comment speaks volumes or whispers and the whole makes you remember each scene long after the film is over. More information is at www.thevisitorfilm.com

Happy Mother’s Day to all.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Morning sky is gray scattered with clouds, the color of the ocean during a storm. I’ve been dabbling away at small projects this morning with NPR on in the background and heard a delightful interview with Kate Christensen about her latest novel The Great Man which has just won the Penn Faulkner award. The story begins: "Kate Christensen had to kill Oscar Feldman before she could start writing about him. She had no choice.
"He was successful. He got what he wanted in life," she says of the womanizing, larger-than-life artist who inspired the title of her PEN-Faulkner Award-winning novel, The Great Man. "Characters who don't suffer have no interest to me." So Oscar was dead before Page 1.”

Christensen is only the fifth woman to have won the Penn Faulkner award and after hearing the details about this book I’m going out and buying it later today. It also has one of my favorite elements in fiction—cooking and food. (I wish more writers would include cooking and meals....) What a person cooks and eats tells us so much about them and I love that Christenson cooked the recipes in the story as she was writing. The story and an excerpt from the book are located at:

Friday, May 09, 2008

Sky blanketed with clouds, but blue showing through nevertheless. Temperatures are supposed to heat up by 50 degrees in next week.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Dawn is breaking and the sky is a blanket of glowering gray.

Yesterday a Roadway truck pulled up and dropped off boxes of my Between the Lines books. Writer’s Digest Books isn’t going to publish the hardcover version that they sold through the book club any more (the softcover version is still in print). I bought copies before it is remaindered. I stacked them in my storeroom and noted I could no longer wiggle into the area where my various boxes of Christmas decorations are stored. I have been planning on whipping this room into shape for more than a year now. I’ve been wanting to buy a bike, but there is no place to stash one….and now there is even less room.

So I was out walking after dinner and thinking about things. As usual I was looking at the sky and flowers and noticing that the patch of park I was walking through was showing at least 40 shades of green. In fact, this spring seems particularly vibrant this year. I was also scouting the neighborhood for lilacs because I’m known to abscond with a bloom or two. (In the name of full disclosure, I usually steal from a house down the block that’s been empty ever since I moved into the neighborhood.)

And I decided to start giving away more books. I’ve given books away before but I’m going to get more organized about it. On Tuesday I shipped some books to Hedgebrook, a writer’s colony for women on Whidbey Island, Washington (www.hedgebrook.org) because an author I know, Megan Clark had just stayed there and mentioned their library didn’t have many books on craft. I also just gave some books to my neighbor who is a substitute writing teacher in high schools because every time I go out of town I call and let them know I won’t be around.

So for people reading this, email me at jessicapage at spiritone.com and the first three people will receive a hardbound copy of Between the Lines. Please include your snail mail and I’ll mention your names in my next blog post.

Since I live alone and work at home I’m a radio person (I like background noise while I write except for when I’m editing something difficult) and I especially like to listen to NPR if I’m home on weekends because their programming is so varied on those days. A show called Car Talk is hosted by two often-cackling Bostonians and they dispense advice about car ailments. It’s much more amusing than it sounds in case you’ve never heard it. They have a segment of the show that they call the “Shameless Commerce Division” when they’re selling something via their website.

That said, I sort of hate the many blogs that are just about selling the writer’s books or products. I’m not against making money, but sometimes blogs are as

Bold as used car salesmen wearing plaid. (Do used car salesmen still wear plaid? My car is a few years old.) And I despair that instead of just writing my books and such that I’m going to start spending my days in gaudy self-promotion cranking out endless blog entries to somehow display parts of myself I’d rather not display.

So I’m going to be a hypocrite and instill a brief Shameless Commerce Division message here to mention that I’m teaching workshops in Manzanita, Oregon on June 20 & 21and my friend Marian Pierce is also joining me to teach a workshop. Marian is a short story writer (although she’s also working on a novel) who has been published in a number of impressive venues and teaches at Marylhurst University and on-line for UCLA Extension Writer’s Program.

I teach a lot of workshops and this is first time I’ve mentioned one in this blog because I think this is going to be special. First, my program is called Summer in Words and I’m planning on it becoming an annual event. Second, Manzanita is a charming coastal town—a place I retreat to as often as possible to get my groove back. Third, the workshops are going to be both practical and inspiring and are divided into four sessions. The first one is Inspiration: Tapping into the inner writer and big awe. The second workshop on Friday afternoon is Expression: Word painting and Voice. On Saturday morning Marian is going teach Refinement: Characters and the last session will be me teaching Refinement: Think like an editor. Also on Friday night there will be an open mike for writers, Out Loud from 7-10. Finally, on Saturday night, not connected to Summer in Words, novelist Jennie Shortridge will lead off a new speaker’s series in Manzanita.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal through the senses with abstractions. Flannery O’Connor

The sky is the color of dirty sheets. That is, if the sheets were once white. When I was a girl everyone owned white sheets and Monday was laundry day. My grandmother had an old ringer wash machine on her back porch and laundry was serious business. I can still see and smell the sheets blowing in a summer breeze in her back yard –they smelled of grass and sunshine and bleach. In the winter she had wooden clothes racks that she hung laundry on in the living room and attic. Few things make me feel happier or calmer than the smells of my childhood—sheets hanging in the sun, lilacs, lily of the valley, honeysuckle, turkey baking on Thanksgiving, cinnamon. When I work with writers I always urge them to use all the senses in their writing, especially our olfactory senses are wired into our memories and emotions.

In my book Between the Lines, Mastering the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing I included a chapter on Sensory Surround. I described why sensory information is important for fiction and nonfiction. Sensory description contributes to every part of fiction and helps readers make connections and experience the story viscerally. Life is breathed into fiction by translating the senses onto the page, producing stories rooted in the physical world. Action and dialogue arrest the reader’s attention, but sensory details assure the reader that they’re actually occurring.

Sensory details penetrate the reader’s nervous system, memory, and imagination; they serve as triggers and catapult readers into the world of the story as well as into their remembrances and emotions. But this penetration cannot happen without highly specific details that can be imagined wholly and viscerally—holly, a ragged hemline, purple pansies, crooked teeth, garlic, rap music blaring from a low-rider, the scent of roses, a rusty swing set, a high school marching band, a vodka martini, a cat mewing pitifully, pearl earrings, roasted red peppers, a Bach cantata, a funeral dirge, black thong underwear, the smell of an old theater—part mildew, stale popcorn, and wet wool.

Sensory details reveal specialness and importance—the places in the story where the reader should pause and take note. Not every scene or action is unfolded with the same weight or importance. Some scenes are transitions, some are building blocks for larger, more dramatic moments, or occur in places where the reader has already visited earlier. In these scenes you won’t lavish as many details on the setting or other aspects—you’ll get down to business and march through the scene. But then for other events, you’ll spend more time and thus more words and details, and your readers will linger there because the level of drama warrants it. The degree of specificity alerts readers when to linger a bit and when to march through actions.

In fact, sensory surround coupled to drama tugs the reader into your story and forces him to keep reading. Precise and sensory word pictures convince the reader that you’ve created a world as vivid as the one he or she lives in. Writing embedded with sensory information pierces the many layers of the reader’s consciousness and delivers an illusion of reality.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace. May Sarton
The sky is a pale gray with warm weather on the way. I’m going to write the morning so I can spend the afternoon gardening before I head to a party. In the background CBS Sunday Morning is featuring a story on the shootings at Kent State 38 years ago.
May 3 was May Sarton’s birthday and The Writer’s Almanac featured her poem Fruit of Loneliness. It was noted: “Over the course of 60 years, she had an incredibly prolific career, publishing about 50 books, including 19 novels, more than a dozen poetry collections, several volumes of journals, and two children's books.”
Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude (1973) written when she was 58, was one of the books that gave me permission to be a writer and to spend my life appreciating all the large and small gifts of the writing life. I always loved imagining Sarton at her desk, in her garden or at her house in Maine, her poet’s senses turned toward a single bloom, the smallest flicker, the ocean’s roar.

Deeply personal excerpts in her memoirs reveal how a writer’s mind at work. “Yesterday was a strange, hurried, uncentered day; yet I did not have to go out, the sun shone. Today, I feel centered and time is a friend instead of the old enemy. It was zero this morning. I have a fire burning in my study, yellow roses and mimosa on my desk. There is an atmosphere of festival, of release, in the house. We are one, the house and I, and I am happy to be alone - time to think, time to be. This kind of open-ended time is the only luxury that really counts and I feel stupendously rich to have it. And for the moment I have a sense of fulfillment both about my life and about my work that I rarely experienced until this year, or perhaps until these last weeks. I look to my left and the transparent blue sky behind a flame-colored cyclamen, lifting about thrity winged flowers to the light, makes an impression of stained glass, light-flooded. I have put the vast heap of unanswered letters into a box at my feet, so I don't see them. And now I am going to make on more try to get that poem right. The last line is still the problem...”
According to her biographer Sarton was a complex and often difficult person. If you’re not familiar with her life story, there is a good reference to it at http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/sarton/blouin-biography.html and at http://languageisavirus.com/may-sarton/ there are a series of links to writing excerpts and interviews.
In her final book, At Eighty-Two: A Journal (1995), which was published the year she died, she said she felt like a "stranger in the land of old age."

Friday, May 02, 2008

The sky is so pale it’s almost colorless. When I returned home from Vancouver on Sunday night as I was unpacking I switched on television and started watching the new PBS series Carrier. I missed the first episode, but was still hooked although the music score is often annoying and it’s a pro-military propaganda piece. I strongly believe in supporting the military, especially when they return from service and need medical help. But I worry that often young men and women choose the military to escape poverty and I worry about the toll of the backdoor draft, especially on those assigned to combat units.

But there’s something about watching this documentary with these 5000+ people (average age 19)and all their sacrifices, dreams, anxieties and the all-too real dangers that gets you. No, I’m not saying this right. What you’ll find in Carrier, is stories, riveting, human stories. When I teach fiction classes I talk about how it’s important to write stories about characters who are vulnerable. This series is about vulnerability.

To explain, it’s a 10-part documentary that was filmed about the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz while they were on deployment in the Persian Gulf. More information is at http://www.pbs.org/weta/carrier/ . It was directed by Maro Chermayeff with executive producers that include Mel Gibson. The film crew had a lot of access even after the crew returned from their deployment.

According to the PBS: “Making the film CARRIER required 17 filmmakers to take a six-month journey aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz during its deployment to the Gulf in support of the Iraq War. They disembarked from Coronado, California on May 7, 2005 and returned there November 8, 2005 with stops at Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong, Guam, Kuala Lumpur, Bahrain and Perth, Australia.

The trip proved an evolution for the film crew who spent the early weeks trying to find their place while the 5,000 sailors and Marines around them were too busy to take notice. Eventually, the film crew discerned the ebb and flow of life on a carrier, and began to feel more at home on board. The ship’s crew not only accepted them but also took a vested interest in the project, making suggestions on the best places to film and providing access to missions that helped capture the full experience of the deployment.

Jammed into their own staterooms, the crew that once felt apart now felt kinship as they shared both trepidation and jubilation awaiting the safe return of the carrier’s jet fighters. When the huge emotional surge of seeing home hit in November, the filmmakers knew how the Nimitz crew must feel. But back on land, their own mission of editing and production continued for nearly three more years before the film CARRIER docked at PBS on April 27, 2008.”

You might want to check out the director’s diary where she explained how she keyed in on certain individuals and how these people were often at a crossroads in their lives.

So it’s a floating city and it’s full of all the drama, heartache, accomplishment, and back story. There’s the guy whose carnie-drug addict parents abandoned him when he was three and now he’s on this ship and he’s tough and he’s a dancer and a father and a complex man. There’s the guy whose girlfriend is pregnant and he’s worried that they might not make things work.

Interspersed throughout the series are snapshots and quick bits of dialogue. In one of the last episodes some members of the crew describe what they miss and one man says, “I miss the sound of birds.” And this statement just brought so much home to me. I’d just been out walking on a soft spring night and I was noticing the birds and their chipper sounds and busy spring twittering. Earlier in the day I had been talking with my mother. She’s recovering from pneumonia and spring has finally arrived in northern Wisconsin. Yesterday she was out in the yard for a while, feeling the sun, but not able to do much. But the ice on their lake had gone out and immediately the loons that live there reappeared and are busy building their nests. And all day I’d been wondering how those loons know when the ice is gone and it's time to come home.

Another woman said, “I miss being normal.” And a young man added, “Cooking. Music. Free time. Being able to get into my car and drive.”

According to the film crew, the opinions from the people aboard ship about the war run the gamut. The carrier is an impressive military machine and I love that this documentary is character-driven. The huge sky in all its moods created an evocative backdrop and the planes taking off and landing are simply amazing. But now I wish someone would spend the same amount of energy following the lives of the Iraqi people who are ducking from those bombs dropped by the dashing pilots we’re following in this series. And I wish PBS or a major network would air that reality.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Dawn is breaking and the sky is an amazing array of clouds with glints of silver and pink woven in. I returned home from Vancouver B.C. with a raging sinus infection and am trying to keep my head from feeling like it’s exploding. So as in the past few mornings, I need to write early before my energy wanes and have even cancelled my mahjong game tonight.

A political observation: Today is the fifth anniversary of the date when Bush was prancing around on the flight deck of U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln for a photo op under a banner that read “mission accomplished.” What he said was “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country.” Tell that to the families of the 4,059 men and women who have died fighting this “war on terror.” Tell that to the thousands of Iraqis killed in the crossfire of a guerilla war. Can I just add here that you cannot declare war on a tactic, but only on a sovereign nation? And let’s not use the euphemism “lost” any more when referring to being somehow killed during this endless occupation. When a person is lost there is hope of finding him or her. Hope that they’ll join the family again for Thanksgiving dinner and later for a game of touch football or a walk in the coming-on-winter dusk.

Okay, no more politics…..except you might want to look up Thom Hartmann’s interview with Don Siegelman (he’s the governor of Alabama who was wrongly imprisoned).

I’m adding more words to my word list: today so I don’t forget to use them: embroglio, blowback, ricochet, vapid, insipid, lucid hunker, prognosticate, scrum, ferocity, paparazzi, cogent, paradox……

I received an email from a guy who lives in Olympia, Washington who has attended several of my workshops. He asked me to write a column about when to pull the plug on a writing project. You see, he started writing a novel several years ago and while he knows more about writing these days his new knowledge still isn’t turning his original manuscript into a winner. In the business world it often happens that a company must pull the plug on a project, a product, a way of operating. Even though they’ve invested time and money and manpower.

But with writing, the investment seems more personal and the loss more intense. So here’s what I think: if you want to write fiction you need to sign up for a fairly long unpaid apprenticeship. This will generally last anywhere from a few years to five or six years of learning the craft. We’ve all heard of some cute young thing that started a bidding war with his or her first novel. It happens, but it’s rare. Most of the authors I meet who have made it big (as in they’re on their fifth, sixth, or tenth book deal) have slogged through this apprenticeship period. And along the way they pulled the plug on a story or two or three.

A few years ago I met a client and gave him that advice. It made me feel ill to do so, but he was wasting his time on endless rewrites of a story that was never strong to begin with and was now a muddled mess that was likely never going to jell. He had a hurt look in his eyes when I suggested he move on to another project, my stomach roiling.

If your manuscript seems like it’s going nowhere, put it away for at least a few months and start another book. (However, don’t stop writing, don’t slide into a month-long pout or depression) Pick yourself up by starting over. Now, at first the world might feel flat and tuneless after you do this, or you might feel a great sense of relief. Pulling the plug is not the same as giving up—it’s about moving on and spending your precious time wisely.